September 06, 2016

Join The YA Debate (Or: You Could Just Read What You Want!)

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Image source: instagram.com/matildahilljenkins

There’s a debate going on at the moment about YA (Young Adult Fiction) and loads of people are getting their knickers in a twist about how “inauthentic” and “damaging” it is (words being thrown around Twitter) that kids are reading seemingly fluffy books and teens aren’t been respected by the publishing industry. The main article that got everyone in a spin was this one: “Why Young Adult Fiction Is A Dangerous Fantasy.”

The author of this piece, Joe Nutt, thinks that the current YA books market (Twilight etc: although he doesn’t namedrop any in particular but there’s a picture of a pale Robert Pattinson accompanying the article) is “favouring gossip over real culture”. That these types of books are “nothing more than gossip fodder, the endless recycling of petty anxieties and celebrity confessions.”

If he was a publisher, he says, “I would be asking them where are those vital books for teenagers that introduce them to the real, adult world?”

Since when was reading as a teen solely about learning about the real, adult world? It’s about losing yourself, exploring new characters, learning new words, increasing your attention span, learning how stories are formed, reading a beginning, middle and end that makes you feel something, bonding with friends who like similar books to you and disappearing into a make-believe world after dinnertime in your poster-covered bedroom. I would never have thought “right yes, this book will teach me all about mortgages, tax and how exactly 1 in 3 marriages fall apart!” Does he think all books should be teacher text-books?

Plus, I can think up many YA books that do a good job of covering relationships, illness, sexual assault, bullying, heartbreak, sex, identity, abortion. These topics are important. To call YA full of “petty anxieties” is unfair. The amount of teens who suffer from anxiety are rising – there is nothing “petty” about anxiety.

As a teen I never wanted to go to books to learn about The Adult World — I wanted to escape The Adult World. It was boring and books were exciting. We learn by living. Yes we learn some things through fiction, but it’s OK for a book to be just entertaining, thrilling and absorbing. A book can be whatever it wants to be. We can like all sorts of books. People can’t be put in categories, so why constantly try and force books in categories?

To put “rules” on reading is to kill the art of reading.

I think we should be celebrating the fact that teens are reading at all. With the endless temptation of scrolling through Instagram we should be encouraging teens to be reading books. Any books. All books!

A recent summary of studies cited by Common Sense Media indicates that teenagers are less likely to read “for fun” at seventeen than at thirteen. Why do teens stopping ready so much as they get older? This is what we should be digging into more deeply. Not giving personal opinions on what people “should” read.

The classics might be read at school, which is great, but in one’s spare time it’s important to enjoy reading for pleasure. I would never have read Louise Rennison’s books during school-time, but I would race home to finish them. It was about having balance. I’d read Tristram Bloody Shandy at University but this wasn’t “pleasure”. Reading tougher books would have increased my reading abilities but I learned how to experiment with dialogue, tell jokes, get over friendship break-ups and laugh off “Real Life” via YA books. My favourite books I read at school was George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Shakespeare’s Othello (which I loved but would never have read without me being made to read them first) but I’d get so excited about reading Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging in bed, giggling at night-time and enjoying the individual experience but also all my friends were reading them so we got to quote bits to each other. It was personal and social at the same time.

I attended a panel called “The Big YA Debate” in Edinburgh (there’s an interesting review on the Guardian here), where three panellists discussed YA and “what young people should be reading.” No offence, but the panel were by no means “young” and they were having a say in what people should be reading. Loads of teens were in the audience and only once during the Q&A did they have a say. The teens in the audience admitted why they read books: to feel less alone. To feel better. To see if there are any characters like them. Nutt says that he thinks YA should “respect” teenagers. But what does that even mean? Can he remember what being a teenager is like? Do we have to take his word for it? There’s no one-size-fits-all for being a teen. Being a teenager is d i f f i c u l t.

I get that YA books should be challenging in other ways. Not necessarily “intellectually” because that reeks of snobbery, but for storylines to be less prim and perfect. To have a bit of edge. Teenagers want to rebel. Teens steal books and magazines they shouldn’t read. We all did it.

But real life isn’t school (thank god). We don’t have to read what other people think we should be reading.

By all means argue that young adults should be reading “up” and therefore reading more “adult” books, but don’t make people feel guilty for liking the odd Vampire romance book. There was one panellist (Anthony McGowan) who was saying that “adults shouldn’t read YA” and “90% of YA is crap” and it was hard to listen to him because he’s point of view was so loaded with unnecessary anger. He finds book bloggers annoying, he says YA is full of women. He sounded bitter against the industry and I didn’t feel like he was genuinely passionate about teens reading.

We only live once and I’d like to read exactly what I want, thanks.

There was a really cool lady in the audience (who I later learned was Patrice Lawrence) who put her hand up and said: “I’m 48, and I’ve lived over half my life. I have lived more years than I have left, and trust me, I won’t be using that time reading Dostoevsky.” The crowd cheered. I liked her.

Here’s what I think:

  • The only relationship or opinion that matters is the unique one between book and reader.
  • Books are popular for a reason – even if other people think they’re vacuous, they are making people happy and you can’t argue with large audiences who all love something.
  • Don’t listen to anyone who says some books aren’t “real books” – read Rebecca Smart’s brilliant piece here.
  • It’s OK that some books are not always for deep intellectual stimulation, but to get lost in another world and escape from the mundanity or struggle of real life.
  • Arguing about book categories isn’t that useful because hardly anyone outside of the publishing industry actually cares what “category” a book sits in, they will probably either randomly find it / or order it online.
  • YOU CAN LIKE ONE THAN MORE BOOK GENRE AT ONCE.
  • Let’s stop inviting book snobs on panels and instead have open-minded conversations.

The end.

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